While most attendees were still wearing their work clothes and sporting a “Hopkins Medicine” badge reel, a viewer might have assumed they were meeting for a presentation on the latest medical research. The wine and cheese table, however, suggested otherwise.
On November 9, Lauren Small hosted a reading of her new novel The hanging of Ruben Ashford at Hopkins Hospital. As part of the Next program in narrative medicine, the event represents a push for Hopkins to emphasize the humanities in medical education with the goal of helping providers understand their patients.
Small is an assistant professor at Hopkins Hospital. While a large proportion of doctors are present in the room, his doctorate is in comparative literature.
Small is the daughter of doctors, and her husband and daughter are also doctors. Opening the event, Small commented on the connections she sees between medicine and storytelling.
“Medical care happens in the context of stories,” she said. “So if you’re a clinician, there are the stories that patients tell you, there are stories that you share with your colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, there are the stories that you tell yourself about the work you do.”
Small series Next, a program where health care providers can meet off shift to discuss literary or artistic work, ranging from paintings by Frida Kahlo to music videos by Kendrick Lamar. After a group discussion, participants write their own personal stories based on their experiences with the play’s theme.
This meeting of Next focused on Small’s own work, recently published by local nonprofit Brick House Books.
The hanging of Ruben Ashford follows a couple of women during the 1918 flu epidemic in Baltimore, where the death rate was the highest in the country at the height of the epidemic. Phipps Psychiatric Clinic psychology researcher Josie Berenson works to defend a black man accused of murdering a white woman. Meanwhile, his partner, Dr Nell Winters, runs a medical practice struggling to treat the influx of flu patients on the first floor of his home in Bolton Hill.
Audience members commented that the story seemed reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic in Baltimore. At one point in the reading, Josie’s character expresses her frustration that the city’s health commissioner refuses to limit public gatherings, choosing instead to let political rallies and parades continue. The scene parallels Donald Trump’s anti-lockdown policy and controversial rallies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Small acknowledged the resemblance of her pandemic narrative to COVID-19, she noted that the book was completed in 2019, before the pandemic began.
“There’s an old saying that tells writers, ‘Be careful what you write, because it just might come true,'” she said.
Small said she was prompted to write the novel after the murder of Freddie Gray by police officers in 2015, the uprisings and social unrest in Baltimore that followed, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
“I was originally going to write about Baltimore in 2015 and about Freddie Grey, but the way my mind works was like, ‘Well, where did that come from?'” he said. she declared. “I ended up stepping back a hundred years to a pivotal time in Baltimore’s history.”
The novel makes several references to the University’s history during the flu pandemic. The character of Josie works for Adolf Meyer, a Hopkins psychiatrist known for founding the Phipps Clinic, which was one of the first psychiatric institutions integrated into a medical hospital.
Clarinda Hariss, editor of Brick House Books (BhB) and attendee of the event, commented on Small’s decision to portray a female couple in 1918 at the center of the story. Hariss recalled the Cone sisters as another example of how female companionship in general was an accepted part of society in the 20th century.
“I also found it remarkable that you had a precedent in many ways… women choosing to live with other women in often very platonic and often not circumstances were really part of normal society in Baltimore and elsewhere” , Hariss said.
Small responded with her own reflection on the decision, saying it was based on research into the decisions that many career-conscious women had to make during the period.
“It was difficult to pursue a career if you were married, because if you were married you were supposed to be a servant. [These women] often didn’t get married, but at the same time they wanted to have love in their lives, they wanted company. They often formed very strong bonds with other women, similar to themselves. And those were sometimes platonic and sometimes not, and nobody even necessarily knew about it or would talk about it,” Small said.
In an interview with The News-LetterHarriss noted her satisfaction with the event and the audience’s engagement with the reading.
“I was truly blown away by the size and intense interest of the crowd at the event,” she said. “Dr. Small not only writes stories, but also uses his and other people’s stories to reach people. What I didn’t realize was that his audience would understand his words on so many levels. I regards the novel and the strong and visible response to the event as possibly the most remarkable moment of [Brick House Book]the story of five decades.
Whereas The hanging of Ruben Ashford was being prepared for publication, Small wrote another novel based on the Nuremberg trials. She is also currently writing a novel about the first crusades.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Small noted how she often uses historical fiction to explore modern social issues. For example, she currently uses the Crusades to explore her perception of white Christian nationalism.
“I take what I see in the present and look for its roots,” she said.
Hanging Ruben Ashford is available via Itasca Books and independent booksellers. Readers can request copies from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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